• Contact
  • Connexion


The Fracturing of Pakistan

Pakistan’s democratic and civilian groups
face various problems : Issues of national
integrity, reduction of violence, the creation
of a governing consensus among different
provinces and ethnic groups ; all of these will
have to be tackled by the new parliament.
But just as important as the restoration of
democracy and the end of military involvement
in politics are problems of poverty and
economic deprivation.

Benazir Bhutto’s tragic death in late December,
2007 reopened long festering
fissures in Pakistani society. Over the
last several years, Pakistan has been
represented as a place where increasingly
belligerent Islamist radicals are
pitched against an entrenched military
ruler who seeks to make the country
into a moderate Muslim state. Yet the rioting
and looting in places like Karachi,
the commercial heart of the country,
and the adjoining Sindh province demonstrate other deep fractures in
Pakistani social life. The city and the province were littered with burntout
cars, trucks, and trailers. Private universities, schools, factories, government
buildings, banks, petrol pumps, and “posh” food outlets, were
all attacked.

The targets were clearly symbols of institutions “where the poor cannot
afford to study ; businesses where they cannot get jobs ; government
offices where they have to pay bribes and where they are insulted and
 [1] The extent of damage to private and public property clearly
shows that, in addition to an outpouring of anger and grief, this reaction
was also indicative of frustration at rising poverty levels. This is not
surprising ; the percentage of Pakistan’s population falling at or below
the poverty line increased from 17% in 1991 to close to 38% in 2002. [2]
Since then, unemployment levels have also increased and there is an
increasingly widespread sense of deprivation that has set in among the
populace after eight years of military rule.

In recent years, public and political questioning of its military rule
has raised important questions about the Pakistani state’s legitimacy.
One key point is the state’s identification with certain ethnic groups,
most notably the Punjabis. Sixty years after independence, and more
than thirty years after the creation of Bangladesh, the state has not successfully
integrated its many cultures and diverse linguistic groups. The
spate of suicide bombings in the last two years, the (alleged) influence
of the Taliban and other radical groups in areas bordering Afghanistan,
and the ongoing insurgency in Baluchistan continue to remind
us of other cracks in Pakistan’s social fabric. Under General Musharaf,
the military attempted to portray itself as a stable political institution
protecting Pakistan from radical Islamists and inept civilian representatives.

Yet, although the General always spoke of providing “security” to
the country, his tenure was marked by numerous “army operations,” as
these were euphemistically termed, in Baluchistan and Sarhad (North
West Frontier Province).
While there may be little doubt about the ideological orientation of
the Islamist radicals in the region, there are also elements of Pashtun
(the dominant ethnic group in Sarhad) nationalism and self-assertion
intermingled with the religious idiom. How Pakistan’s North West Frontier
Province, the area bordering Afghanistan with a majority Pashtun
population, went from being a hub of nationalist and leftist politics to
being identified with radical Islamic movements remains an unwritten
part of Pakistani history. When it is written, the narrative of this transformation
must, of course, include a major section on the roles played
by Pakistan’s security services and state structures in addition to those
of the US and other international players during and after the war in
Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In addition, the state has also pushed against Baluch and Sindhi political
aspirations targeting ethnic nationalists and various groups who
resist the building of army cantonments and high tech ports on their
lands, or have stood against the export of natural resources without
compensation to local communities. During such engagements, the
military strategies have included aerial carpet bombing, the use of
heavy artillery or incursions with tanks ; needless to say, such tactics do
not distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians. The inappropriateness
of such manoeuvres has never been lost on the local people
who have increasingly resented and resisted the army’s presence in
their midst. This was quite evident in the public support for the recently
dismissed Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry.

The judiciary

The Chief Justice, previously handpicked
by the General, was summarily
dismissed by General Musharaf in
March 2007 for agreeing to accept
habeas corpus petitions from families
of disappeared persons who many suspect
have been handed over to foreign
intelligence agencies as part of General
Musharaf’s “services” in the “War
on Terror.”
As the Chief Justice publicly
resisted his dismissal, the public support he received went, perhaps,
beyond his own expectations. In one case, due to the crowds gathered
alongside the road, his convoy took 28 hours to travel from Islamabad
to Lahore for a journey that normally lasts four to five hours. The lawyers’
movement built around the Chief Justice was clearly a resistance
to the wider implications of General Musharaf’s regime.

Chaudry’s case seemingly united many factions within Pakistani society.
However, over time the movement became increasingly the domain
of middle class activists. Whereas protest had previously tended
to focus on unemployment and poverty, after Chaudry’s dismissal, the
perimeters of effective protest have shifted to include visible markers
of democracy, such as the freedom of the judiciary and the media. It is
clear that the two sets of concerns are not mutually exclusive. Yet for
many perhaps it was the Chief Justice’s defiance to the military rule that
provided inspiration, and not a general call for upholding the rights of
the judiciary. Indeed, the judiciary in Pakistan, in its abstract form, has
historically—linked as court cases are to high lawyer fees, bribery to
various officers of the courts, and intimidation by more powerful parties—
seldom provided free and fair justice to the common person.

Through his government’s handling of the Chaudry matter, General
Musharaf faced severe pressure regarding the legitimacy of his rule.
The most sophisticated political group in Pakistan, the military, eventually
managed the crisis and temporarily pacified matters by reinstating
the Chief Justice in July 2007. At the same time, under intense pressure
from the US to demonstrate its anti-Islamist credentials (and perhaps
also to divert attention from rising anti-Musharaf sentiment), the state
also used excessive force against the radicals in the Red Mosque (Lal
Masjid) in Islamabad. As students and teachers barricaded themselves
in the Lal Masjid complex, the army laid siege and eventually raided the
compound. In the process, scores of men, women, and children were
killed or wounded.

The political parties

During this period, there can be little doubt that mainstream political
parties did not provide effective support for the lawyers’ movement.
Indeed, at the peak of the movement’s popularity, Benazir
Bhutto entered into a deal with Musharaf that allowed her to return
to Pakistan without the threat of pending corruption cases against
her. Musharaf delivered on this promise by passing the infamous NRO
(National Reconciliation Ordinance), effectively wiping out all corruption
charges against politicians made prior to 1999. With its mass base,
Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party could have bridged the gap
between the lawyers’ movement and the larger public. Yet, by entering
into this deal, Bhutto effectively betrayed the lawyer’s movement
by leaving no viable political route for its demands of judicial freedom
and civil liberties to be met. With one of the key opposition parties
now thus hamstrung, the lawyer’s movement could hope to make no
further significant changes at the political level.

When in October Bhutto finally returned to Pakistan after eight years
in exile, her welcome procession in Karachi was rocked by a bomb explosion
that killed close to 150 people and injured many others. Soon
after this, the government escalated its military operations in the
Swat valley, a part of the Sarhad Province that was hitherto peaceful.
In this case, the government’s operations were directed towards a
group of supporters of proselytizing leader Maulvi Fazlulallah (previously
in league with the state’s own security agencies). However, yet again these operations involved the aerial bombing of villages and
road blockades—an approach which led to food and medical shortages.
There is ongoing speculation that the incidences at Lal Masjid
and in Swat valley were conveniently timed by the regime. For, not
only were they useful in diverting public attention from various pressing
economic and social crises, such instances also allowed Musharaf
to present himself as the voice of secularism and religious freedom to
a Western audience. [3]

Military rule

Fearing a high court ruling that his presidency was now unconstitutional,
on 3 November 2007 Musharaf imposed emergency rule. To
tackle what he perceived as the worsening security situation, Musharaf
dismissed the superior judiciary and held the constitution in
abeyance. The state enforced new regulatory rules on the media and
imprisoned thousands of people. Hand picked Supreme Court judges
ruled in favor of the General and he was elected president for the next
five years by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Continued local and international disenchantment led Musharaf to
renounce his army role and become a “civilian” president. [4] Moreover,
a date for elections in January (postponed to 18 February following
Bhutto’s death) was announced. Riding on the platform of a burgeoning
pro-democracy movement of lawyers, students, and civil society
actors, a coalition of political parties, including the Islamist party
Jama‘at-e-Islami, announced that they would boycott the elections
unless the judiciary was restored and emergency rule lifted by 28 November
2007. Participation in the polls by political parties was seen
as an acceptance of the political process as laid out under the Provisional
Constitutional Order (PCO) promulgated by Musharraf. It would
implicitly endorse all the constitutionally illegal acts committed by
the regime and, thus, would be contrary to the demands of civil society
groups demonstrating daily in Pakistan. Indeed, a boycott by
major parties of the electoral process would theoretically have delegitimized
the entire arrangement.

Yet, the two major parties, the People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto and
the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, agreed to participate in
the process and, thus, damaged the protest movement that had been
counting on their support. Both leaders may have felt that, had they
not participated in the elections, the already present corruption cases
could be re-instituted against them. The military was aware of these
weaknesses and also understood the traditional rivalry between the
two leaders. By allowing Sharif back into the country, it created a further
challenge to Bhutto’s electoral ambitions.

It was while she was campaigning for elections in Rawalpindi, the
base for the army’s high command, that Bhutto was killed. Whether
the killers were Islamists, as the government claims, remains to be
seen. One thing, however, is certain : there is now widespread suspicion
regarding the government’s complicity in this event. Moreover,
the assassination has also worsened ethnic tensions in a country that
has never been free of such worries. Many in her home province of
Sind felt that, once again, a Sindhi politician of national stature has
been deprived of a share in the country’s power structures. For many
of her supporters, Bhutto’s death was reminiscent of that of her father,
the ex-Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, who was hung by another
military dictator who was seen as representing Punjabi interests, as
does the present regime.

Despite its obvious ethnic dimension, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination
had the strange quality of being expected and yet, until it happened,
quite unimaginable. It has, however, further exposed both the
illegitimate nature of Musharaf’s regime, and the fundamental disenchantment
of the Pakistani people with the state. The failure of this
state to provide a modicum of hope for social mobility and economic
stability to the majority of its citizens, along with the vanishing sense
of personal security in rural and urban areas, has shattered the aura of
invincibility once held by Musharaf. The fracturing of the state is not
only recognizable by the insurgency in Baluchistan or by the Islamist
radicals in Sarhad and Swat, but also by the potential of some of these
groups to set up civic and judicial services outside the formal state
structures. The illiberal character of some of these systems notwithstanding,
there is no doubting their popular appeal when contrasted
with the increasingly violent state.

In the final analysis it is not about personalities like Musharaf, rather
it is the institutional entrenchment of the Pakistani military that is
at stake. As a political entity the military has been the key conduit
of US interests in Pakistan. Currently, there is a growing awareness,
within the military and its US supporters, of the military’s current lack
of credibility among the Pakistani people. Musharaf’s decision to renounce
his uniform—to become a civilian president—may be understood,
therefore, as an attempt by the military to untangle itself from
the everyday processes of governance, though it continues to control
the levers of power in Pakistan. Worryingly, the Pakistani military has
only given up power to leave the country in turmoil : in 1971, Pakistan
was divided into two parts after a brutal civil war ; and in 1988,
after the sudden death of Zia-ul-Haq, it suffered
the after effects of the Afghan war—namely, increased
Islamic militancy, ethnic strife, and the
proliferation of drugs and arms. The social and
political costs of the last eight years of military
rule are manifest in the very violence that led up
to the elections on 18 February.

The challenges faced by Pakistan’s democratic
and civilian groups are now multi-fold. As the
election results show, when given a chance, the
Pakistani people chose to vote against the regime’s
supporters. The issue of national integrity,
the reduction of violence, and the creation of a
governing consensus among different provinces
and ethnic groups may be foremost in the minds
of the new parliament. Yet, in Pakistan, the mere
restoration of democratic forms of governance
is not enough. Rather, a much deeper sensitivity
to the problems of poverty and economic deprivation
is needed for democratic interventions
to be meaningful. Democratic struggle in the
twenty first century should not only be against
tyranny, but against misery and injustice for it to
provide a future of hope. [5]


[1See Arif Hasan, Dawn (Karachi), 3 January

[2World Bank, Poverty in Pakistan :
Vulnerabilities, Social Gaps and Rural
Dynamics, October 2002.

[3This Western audience is pivotal for a
domestically beleaguered Musharaf.
In a recent interview Musharaf seems
increasingly paranoid : “The media have let
me down...The NGOs are against me. I don’t
know why. I think I have been the strongest
proponent of human rights...”
to Musharaf, the only people who are not
against him are the Western leaders which
he describes as “absolutely supportive” and
as expressing “total solidarity.” Jemima Khan,
“An Extraordinary Encounter with Musharaf,”
Independent, 2 February 2008.

[4His replacement, General Kiyani, has been
thoroughly vetted and primed by the USA
to continue the kind of access General
Musharaf had promised.

[5See Arjun Appadurai, “Hope and Democracy,”
Public Culture 19, no. 1 (Winter 2007) : 29-34.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.